A city was bound to rise where Cape Girardeau is today. The river makes a big turn here, throwing the force of its current near the base of a prominent formation known as Cape Rock. That makes for an easy-to-spot landmark and a good place to land a boat. It also helped that the views from the top of the rock were expansive; a person could see for miles up and down the river.
The origin of the city’s name is a bit of a mystery, but it probably comes from a soldier, Jean Baptiste Girardot, who set up a trading camp at this point around the middle of the 18th century. He apparently didn’t stick around all that long, but other people must have grown accustomed to calling the place after him, so the name stuck.
It wasn’t until 1793 that an effort was made to establish a more permanent European settlement. Don Louis Larimier got permission from the area’s Spanish commander to set up a trading post. Located near the El Camino Real, a road that connected the Spanish settlements of St. Louis and New Madrid, the post was established to set up trading relationships with American Indians in the area.
Lorimier was born near Montreal in 1748. A gifted polyglot, he worked in the Indian trade most of his life and married a Shawnee woman, Charlotte. He wasn’t too fond of the Americans he met. In 1778, during the American Revolution, he led a raid that resulted in the capture of Daniel Boone. The Americans eventually caught up to him at Vincennes and drove him across the Mississippi River into Spanish territory.
The Spanish authorities soon discovered his language skills, so they put him to work as a translator and mediator. Grateful for the help, the Spanish Governor Baron de Carondelet gave Lorimier 6,000 acres, which included present-day Cape Girardeau. He built a home known as the “Red House” that served as his trading post and a gathering place for the small community.
On the eve of the Louisiana Purchase, a census of the entire district counted 545 white men, 481 white women, 90 male slaves, and 80 female slaves. When the territory joined the US in 1804, he donated four acres for the construction of a Common Pleas Court House and got a temporary appointment as a judge.
In 1806, Lorimier’s secretary, Barthelemi Cousin, laid out a village. Only a few lots were sold, in part because Lorimier was reluctant to part with much of his land. As a result, people who moved into the area generally staked out claims in the surrounding countryside. Lorimier died in 1812 and left behind a lot of confusion about who owned what. The US government had initially refused to recognize his Spanish land grants, which clouded titles; the government didn’t formally recognize his land claims until 1826. As a result, the county seat moved to Jackson and the town didn’t grow much until the 1830s. In 1818, the town had just two stores and about fifty houses.
Around 1820, an expedition led by Major Stephen Long passed through the area:
The town comprises at this time about twenty log cabins, several of them in ruins, a log jail no longer occupied, a large unfinished brick dwelling falling rapidly into decay and a small one finished and occupied, it stands on the slope and part of the summit of a broad hill elevated about 150 feet above the Mississippi and having a deep primary soil resting on a strata of compact and sparry limestone. Near the place where boats usually land is a point of white rock jutting into the river and at very low stage of water producing a perceptible rapid…The streets of Cape Girardeau are marked out with form of regularity intersecting each other at right angles but they are in some parts so gullied and torn by the rains as to be impassable; others overgrown with such thickets of gigantic vernonias and urticlas as to resemble small forests.
By the 1830s, steamboat traffic was growing and would provide a big economic boost for the city, enough to spur other developments. In 1838, the Congregation of the Mission (better known as the Vincentians) established St. Vincent’s Male Academy, which would later become St. Vincent’s College. While the campus included a seminary to train priests (it moved to St. Louis in 1893 and renamed Kenrick Seminary), the fathers also founded a secular educational institution at a time when such schools were rare. The Vincentians owned several enslaved laborers in the school’s early years but probably began selling them to local Catholics after a decree from Pope Gregory XVI 1839 that condemned the slave trade.
By 1830, there were a thousand enslaved blacks in Cape Girardeau, but that would swell to over 1,500 by the Civil War; just twenty free blacks lived in all of Cape Girardeau County in 1850. The local powers-that-were passed a series of increasingly oppressive laws to keep the enslaved population under control, including one measure in the 1840s that authorized the formation of patrols to keep enslaved people from gathering in groups.
Cape Girardeau was a city with divided loyalties during the Civil War. Many early residents had migrated to the city from the South, but the city also had a large population of pro-Union German immigrants. The Union Army took control of the city on July 10, 1861, and never relinquished it. As a result, many of the Confederate sympathizers fled, some to join the Confederate Army.
General Ulysses S. Grant took command of the district in September 1861 and ordered construction of four forts to protect the city. Once it became clear that no Confederate attacks were imminent, the army turned to raiding the countryside to go after Confederate sympathizers.
The city’s economy picked up again after the Civil War. Industries like logging and sawmills, cement manufacturing, quarries, mills, pottery and cigar factories employed large portions of the population.
In 1873, Southeast Missouri State College was founded as a normal school (educating future teachers); it would later become Southeast Missouri State University.
Cape Girardeau began to grow quickly in the early part of the 20th century. In 1900, the city counted just under 5,000 residents, but by 1940 it was home to nearly 20,000 people. One reason was the presence of the largest factory in the International Shoe Company portfolio. The factory opened in 1907 as the Roberts, Johnson & Rand Shoe Company. By the 1950s, the plant employed nearly 1,400 people and turned out 8,000-9,000 pairs of shoes a day. The plant was later rebranded with the company’s Florsheim Shoe division, which built a new facility in 1984 but competition from international markets led to declining employment and the eventual closure of the plant at the end of 1999, at which time the remaing 300 employees were laid off.
Celeste Beatrice Stanton remembered visiting her aunt Josephine Brown, or Aunt Phene, in Cape Girardeau during the 1930s. Her aunt lived on a block of South Fountain Street that was next to a gully that had train tracks running through it. Every time a train approached, it triggered the family to close up the house to protect it from the train’s soot.
When Aunt Phene heard the train whistle blow in the near distance, she’d shoosh me into the house and everyone would hurridly slam down the open windows and shut all the doors to prevent the acrid, black soot billowing out of the train’s stack from permeating the insides of the home. Once the train passed and the soot settled, the doors and windows would be re-opened and Aunt Phene would see to it that the soot was wiped from items on the porch, and the porch and steps were swept clean.
Jazz pianist Jess Stacy grew up in Cape Girardeau. During his long and successful career, he played with Benny Goodman Orchestra and many other well-known musicians. Stacy was born in 1904 in a converted railroad box car near Bird’s Point, Missouri. One of his first jobs was working for the Illinois Central Railroad on a ferry that moved rail cars to and from Cairo, Illinois. He moved to Cape Girardeau in 1918, and two years later heard Fate Marable and Louis Armstrong play on the excursion boat St. Paul during a stop in Cape Girardeau.
A year later, he was hired as a musician on the Majestic. In 1923, he got a job playing with Tony Catalano’s Famous Iowans; one of his responsibilities was to play what he called “the damn calliope.” He was part of the Benny Goodman Band when they played Carnegie Hall in 1938, the first jazz performance in that famed venue. During that show, Stacy played a two-minute improv solo that jazz lovers still rave about today. He played with many of the greatest jazz musicians, and even worked for Al Capone and Bugs Moran at one time. Still, he had a hard time making a living as a jazz pianist. He played shows in piano bars—he hated doing it—and ended up taking a job with Max Factor in Los Angeles, delivering company mail for ten years to help pay the bills. He died in 1995.
Cape Girardeau today is still attracting new residents; it’ll probably hit 40,000 by the 2020 census. Southeast Missouri State University remains an anchor. Health care is a major employer, as is Proctor and Gamble.